Try remembering when you spent an extended period of time in nature. Maybe it was a camping trip or a long hike.
Do you remember how you felt during that time? You may have experienced some of the following benefits.
*Physiological Benefits might have included more energy, better sleep,
enhanced immunity, healthy digestion, reduced inflammation, lowered blood pressure.
*Mental Health Benefits
These might include increased focus, enhanced creativity, less stress, enhanced memory, improved mood, less anxiety, relaxation, etc.
*Emotional and Psycho-Spiritual Health Benefits
These might include people feeling
more connected, more alive, more present,
as well as having experiences characterized by
joy, transformation, rest, forgiveness, grief,
self acceptance, love, reconciliation, insight,
dreams, awe, perspective, purpose, empowerment,
empathy, integration, release, wholeness, etc.
We all know we feel better outdoors, (these effects last long after the experience) but what does the science on forest bathing say?
Health Science of Relaxation: Forest Therapy and the Human Nervous System.
Human beings have evolved a nervous system that allows them to manage sudden bouts of stress with the aid of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system rapidly changes the biology of the human body. When the body perceives danger, the sympathetic nervous system activates a stress response, which are known as “fight, flight, freeze or fawn” responses. If a mountain lion charges a person, that person’s body will automatically trigger one of these stress responses, which triggers changes such as increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and decreasing memory capacity, learning, and digestion. The stress responses prioritize survival above all else. When a mountain lion chases a person, that person’s brain doesn’t care about learning new skills or digesting food, it just wants to get away as fast as possible.
The biological changes in the body in response to danger are activated by hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which flood the body when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Since the sympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system, humans have no direct control over it (compared to actions like walking or talking, which are part of the somatic nervous system and that we do control). This means, people don’t control when they get triggered into fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
Once danger is escaped, the body then activates the parasympathetic nervous system, whose function is known as “rest and digest.” The person who escaped the mountain lion and returns to a sense of being safe will reflexively begin to redirect energy to digestion, learning, memory, resting, and rebuilding muscle tissue—the processes that support healing. This is all done without our conscious action.
One of the critical problems of the 21st century is that our bodies are designed for the 2nd century but our cultures have rapidly evolved. Today, people’s bodies activate the sympathetic nervous system not because a wild animal is chasing, but because they are connected to an incredible
amount of information that is, highly stressful, and they are surrounded by
stimuli—such as traffic, congested cities and loud noises—which may be perceived as threatening to their safety.
Whether it’s the threat of nuclear war, natural disasters, climate change, terrorism, economic destabilization, or any other array of calamities, people get stressed all the time because they get notifications on their phones that their bodies interpret in much the same way as the body would if a mountain lion were chasing it.
The body uses up stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol only through physical exercise (like running away from the lion), and if there is no physical release and stress hormones linger in the body, they can begin to have toxic impact. In addition, lack of movement- especially micro movements around joints results in dehydration of your fascia (muscles). You are left feeling anxious and tense.
Thus, modern stress triggers are doubly dangerous as people become more sedentary and fail to get rid of the stress hormones. To make matters worse, because the body craves chemical equilibrium, humans can become accustomed to and even addicted to stress. When this happens, people may act in ways that promote the constant trigger
ing of the sympathetic nervous system.
Stress addiction is linked to issues such as anxiety, depression, poor digestion, headaches, insomnia, heart disease, weight gain, and attention and memory loss. One of the reasons Forest Therapy is an innovative modern health solution is that it draws on nature’s ability to calm us down and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Research has
shown that the parasympathetic nervous system can be activated through mindfulness activities, such as focused breathing.
Forest Therapy falls into this category as well. There is an incredible
amount of research demonstrating that simply seeing the colors green and blue can ease our bodies toward relaxation. When we activate the senses of the body, we are shifting attention away from the cycle of thoughts that can often trigger the stress response and moving our focus toward states of rest and relaxation that promote parasympathetic response. When practiced regularly, the health effects are amplified. You may start noticing more often as your thoughts (many thoughts have a negative bias) appear. Without awareness, there is not choice!
Often, modern people address the pandemic of stress by numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol, but this is not a biologically healthy solution. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system is our body’s innate mechanism for health and wellbeing. When we activate this rest and digest mode, our bodies are healing themselves. Many modern people complain of chronic exhaustion, which researchers believe may be due in part to the fact that people are not absorbing nutrients and energy from the food they eat due to the ineffective parasympathetic response. It does not matter if the food is healthy if the body is not capable of digesting and absorbing those nutrients. This is just one of many health outcomes that rely on the power of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Beyond digestion, the parasympathetic nervous system promotes health of the kidneys, lungs, heart, intestines, and reproductive organs.
So, while it’s good to have the sympathetic nervous system when a mountain lion rushes, daily health is really a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is why it is important for people to slow down, relax, and breathe. Forest Therapy helps us do this.
Forest Bathing, Immunity, and Phytoncides
The human body defends itself against infectious organisms and other invaders through the immune system. One important weapon in the immune system’s arsenal are white blood cells.
White blood cells come in two varieties and each serve distinct functions. The first type, called phagocytes, attack and kill invading bacterial organisms.
The second type, called lymphocytes, help the body remember and recognize previously encountered invaders so that they can be more easily defeated in future instances of infection.
There are two types of lymphocytes: B-cells and T-cells. B- lymphocytes identify and locate infected cells and lymphocytes eliminate them. T-cells are the kind that kill cells infected by viruses and cancerous cells.There are special white blood cells called Natural Killer (NK) cells. NK-cells are like the body’s first responders. They can notice cancerous and infected cells before other white blood cells have been activated.
When people go into the Forest, something quite incredible happens. Their bodies produce more NK-cells. Trees are biological organisms that have their own ways of defending themselves from attacking organisms. One of the ways trees protect themselves is by diffusing a special class of chemicals into the air called phytoncides. Phytoncides are chemically similar to the essential oils produced by plants and are active substances that are anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral and prevent the plants from rotting. When a tree is threatened by an attacking organism, such as a fungus, the tree responds by showering itself with these phytoncides, which then seek out and destroy the fungus.
When humans inhale phytoncides or absorb them through the skin, it prompts the human body to produce NK cells. For this reason, Japanese researchers named their practice of forest medicine “Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku)” because when people are in the Forest, they are bathing in
the phytoncide-rich atmosphere of the Forest—a sort of “natural aromatherapy.”
Phytoncides released from trees also decrease the production of stress hormones and have a calming effect on humans. It is well known that stress inhibits immune function, and that a properly functioning immune system plays an important role in maintaining human health. So, forest environments may boost the human immune system by reducing stress and increasing immune-cell function. For these reasons, Forest Therapy can be viewed as an effective strategy to maintain and boost immune strength in human beings.
Attention Restoration Theory and Forest Therapy
There are many studies that suggest that time spent in nature has positive effects on attention,
cognitive performance, emotions, mood, and behavior, although it is important to point out that many of these studies need further academic support to move beyond the realm of theory. One of these studies is Attention Restoration Theory (ART) as proposed by Rachel and Stephen
The Kaplans theorize that there are four cognitive states on the pathway toward cognitive
1) Clearer head, or concentration.
2) Mental fatigue recovery.
3) Soft fascination, or interest.
4) Reflection and restoration.
A forest therapy guide uses specific techniques that cultivate a sense of well being. Participants will leave with a new skill set that can dramatically improve overall health and well being.
In the first and second stages, people set aside the thoughts, worries, and concerns of their everyday lives and allow their minds to rest. In Forest Therapy, this is accomplished through Pleasures of Presence and What’s in Motion, as the guide shifts participants’ awareness away from thinking and into their senses and bodies.
The third stage allows people to be gently distracted and engage in a low stimulation activity.
This creates a quiet internal space for relaxation. In Forest Therapy, this occurs in the liminal phase of the walk.
The final stage is reached once a person has spent a prolonged amount of time in a natural, restorative environment. Once here, they are able to relax, restore their attention and reflect on their life. This is accomplished in Forest Therapy as part of the threshold of incorporation and
lingering after the tea ceremony.
To schedule a group or personal experience,
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